- The Washington Times - Monday, August 2, 2004

Looking back years later, Harold Arlin was the soul of modesty. “I was just a nobody,” he would say, “and our broadcast wasn’t that big a deal.”

But, of course, it was. On Aug.5, 1921, Arlin sat in Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field and became baseball’s first play-by-play man as the Pirates defeated the Philadelphia Phillies 8-5.

More than eight decades later, baseball on radio has become a part of life for most sports fans. There is no more intimate broadcasting connection than that between a good play-by-play announcer and his listener because the two spend time together on and off for six months a year.

You might listen to an entire three-hour game at home or just an inning or two while in the car. You might even turn the TV on and hit its “mute” button while you listen to the radio. But it isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that the guys who do your team’s games can seem more familiar than some family members.

No other sport lends itself to radio as well as baseball. It is almost impossible to capture the action of football, basketball and hockey adequately through words alone — pictures are essential. But baseball is a game of gaps and silences, and a broadcaster can use them to paint word scenes more compelling than any TV replay.

Think Russ Hodges during the most dramatic moment in sports history, at the Polo Grounds on Oct. 3, 1951:“There’s a long drive! It’s gonna be, I believe! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”

Or Red Barber during the 1947 World Series: “Swung on, belted! Back goes Gionfriddo! Back, back, back, back, back, back! He makes a one-handed catch against the bullpen! Oho doctor!”

Or Jack Buck in 1988: “Gibson swings and a flyball to deep right field! This is going to be a home run! Unbelievable and the Dodgers have won the game 5-4! I don’t believe what I just saw! I don’t believe what I just saw!”

Each of us had or has a favorite broadcaster: Mel Allen, Bob Wolff, Arch McDonald, Harry Caray, Vin Scully, Ernie Harwell, Chuck Thompson, Jon Miller, Whoever. Harold Arlin was the guy who started it all, but if he is remembered today, his name is likely to be confused with that of Harold Arlen, the songwriter who gave us “Over the Rainbow,” “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “Stormy Weather” and dozens of other classics.

Arlin was a staff announcer at Westinghouse-owned KDKA in Pittsburgh, which became the nation’s first commercial radio station in November 1920 when it broadcast results of the presidential election between Warren Harding and James Cox. The following year, Arlin became the first man to do nearly everything on the air — broadcasting baseball scores, covering a tennis match and describing a football game (Pitt vs. West Virginia) in addition to his baseball breakthrough. Unfortunately, no recordings have survived, and Arlin himself died in 1986 at age 90.

“Since I had already done these things, or was planning to do them, the Pirates were a natural,” Arlin recalled in author Curt Smith’s definitive “Voices of the Game.” “So I went out to Forbes Field and set up shop.”

Needless to say, there were problems.

“Sometimes the transmitter worked, and sometimes it didn’t,” Arlin told Smith in 1984. “Sometimes the crowd noise would drown us out, and sometimes it wouldn’t. Quite frankly, we didn’t know what the reaction would be — whether we’d be talking into a complete vacuum or whether somebody actually would hear us. … No one had the foggiest idea, the slightest hint of an inkling that what we started would take off like it did.”

Arlin’s career as a baseball broadcaster was short-lived, although 45 years after his debut he returned to share the Pirates microphone with Bob Prince during a game in 1966. Before leaving the medium in 1927, he achieved more attention on the air introducing notables like Herbert Hoover, David Lloyd George, Lillian Gish … and George Herman Ruth.

Appearing in Pittsburgh for an exhibition game, Ruth agreed to speak over KDKA. Arlin, thoroughly prepared, even wrote a speech for the Babe to deliver.

“I was sure I’d thought of everything,” Arlin recalled. “After all, how could the Babe flub it with the words right in front of him? So I introduced him, and this big, talkative, garrulous guy couldn’t say a word. I mean, this radio thing was just so new.”

What to do, what to do?

“I grab the speech, and now I’m Babe Ruth! I’m reading the speech, and there’s the Babe leaning against a wall, smoking a cigarette and trying to compose himself. You know something? We pulled it off. I signed off, and Babe Ruth hadn’t made a sound.”

KDKA received hundreds of letters praising “The Babe” for his mellifluous delivery.

It is not known whether Arlin did other play-by-play during the 1921 season, but by fall stations in Newark, N.J., and Springfield, Mass., had joined KDKA to form the first network. When famed columnist Grantland Rice broadcast the World Series between the New York Giants and New York Yankees, baseball on radio was on its way to becoming a national passion of the national pastime.

It would have happened without Harold Arlin, but like all pioneers he deserves credit for paving the way. The next time you tune in a game, think of him for a pitch or two.

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